How to be a leader in a VUCA world

by | Dec 19, 2019

sparkler firework in the dark close up

Perhaps the most contentious General Election so far this century, the President of the US undergoing impeachment proceedings, the world living under the threat of climate disaster… could the world be much more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex or Ambiguous than it is at the moment?

Today’s leaders are under more pressure than ever before, they have to make decisions faster and in our ‘always on’ and interconnected world each decision is far more public, and therefore subject to a greater level of scrutiny than in the past.

VUCA is a concept that has its origins at the end of the Cold War and was used by students at the Army War College to try and describe the unpredictability of the World around them at that time. The acronym stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, and is now used more often in a business concept. We often hear it when talking about the leadership required to navigate the current environment successfully.

So how can leaders show the way through a VUCA world?

Unpredictable events can be negative and positive, but they both bring greater VUCA – whether they present opportunities or threats.

In the past we have may have concentrated our planning and contingency efforts on what is probable, rather than the whole spectrum of what is possible.

It’s more important than ever to think widely in terms of all of the things that could happen in a VUCA world, even if that can sometimes be quite difficult to do.

Our brains are hard-wired to look for precedents, and make predictions and recommendations based on previous evidence. And in many situations that’s a very sensible approach.

However, when trying to navigate the VUCA world we need to think differently, and learn different ways of planning so that we can see and plan for the whole picture.

Here are some steps that all leaders can take to help prepare themselves, and their organisations, for anything that might come their way.

  1. Ask all the questions. When discussing a situation try and think of all of the questions anyone could possibly ask about that subject, and make sure you have the answer to them.
  2. Further to this, try and see if you have looked at the situation from all of the different perspectives you can think of.
  3. Imagine the situation, and then imagine zooming out, as though looking through a wide lens, to see what else is going on around that situation. Make sure you have asked all of the questions and examined perspectives from this ‘wider’ angle.
  4. Try and be a less hierarchical organisation and be more democratic with information. This can help employees feel more confident about and be more empowered to make decisions. This can be very useful in high pressure situations.

In a VUCA world, you can’t control the outside, so the only thing to do is to try and influence the inside, and have things running as smoothly as possible. If you work on the flow of information, and responsive decision-making you will be some way towards preparing your organisation to be able to deal with anything that comes its way.